Naming the elephant | One Foot in the Cloister

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There is probably more than one elephant in the Catholic ecclesiastical room at the moment. Yet there is one that many will recognise when forced to, though not many have named it.

Naming the elephant | One Foot in the Cloister

Universal salvation.

If one is to judge a tree by its fruit, and if our actions betray our deepest beliefs, then it seems a reasonable conclusion that the majority of the Church, lay and ordained, adheres in functional terms to functionally universal salvation.

How else does one explain the marginalisation, trivialisation, and even abandonment of some pretty central elements of the Christian faith and its living? (There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.)

If so few come to confession, or even see a need to come to confession, it can only be that they do not see it as having any necessary role in our salvation. In other words, mortal sin has been dealt a mortal wound.

Indeed sacramental practice in general is so low that one must surely conclude that few now see sacraments as intrinsically ordered to and effective for salvation. Even when we do get some numbers, baptism and first communions mainly, are these sacraments seen as vital to salvation or, rather, effectively rites of social passage tinged with a warm religious/spiritual hue? After all, most catechesis on baptism seems to focus overwhelmingly on it as entry into the community, and first communicants seem to learn only that the Mass is some sort of special community meal that helps us remember Jesus.

Catholic schools are largely focused on the secular curriculum, and the religious instruction they offer seems designed neither to offend nor to challenge anybody, except perhaps on issues of social justice where we can safely expect secular plaudits.

We can allow a committee to manufacture a new liturgy, and even suppress the liturgy that nourished the faith of western Catholics for a millennium and a half. Why not, if the liturgy is little more than the self-expression of a community in its time and place?

We now see disturbing deals done by the Vatican with Communist China that undercut the witness of faithful Catholics there who have endured decades of persecution. Recently abortion advocates have been not merely consulted, but appointed as members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, an action more Orwellian than Orwell might have imagined. With little more than a furrowed brow the announcement by an American president, who proudly and loudly identifies as Catholic, that he will do his damnedest to impose federal legislation to enshrine the right to abortion of a baby up to birth, is allowed to pass with almost no comment from on high.

Why bother to go to Mass or any sacrament, why bother to stand up to anti-Christian ideologies, why make ourselves socially laughable by upholding the fundamental Christian teaching on family, sexuality, and life, if none of it really matters?

Why would it not matter? Well, if we are all saved anyway! If we are all saved, no matter what, then nothing matters, nothing is essential except, contingently, that which facilitates our desire to fit in here and now. Universal salvation is the apogee of narcissistic comfort seeking.

I suspect there is another elephant lurking in the room as well. Functional godlessness. More and more it seems that even in the Church the focus is on this world, its priorities and demands, its ideologies and priorities, and so the mission of the Church is little more than that of a commercial enterprise seeking to secure its niche in the secular marketplace. That is why we can have endless “initiatives” which are essentially ordered to increasing income and keeping the firm financially viable. When we do manage to talk about God, he is presented as little more than a cosmic sugar daddy, and Christ our cosmic buddy.

If it is all about this world, if salvation is not at stake, then there is no need to stand up to anything, except that to which the world takes offence. Very often that is the Christian faith itself.

This being so, then we are left with another conclusion, one that should disturb us. If nothing we do matters for our eternal salvation, then we are not free. Freedom implies that we can make a choice that matters, that has a real effect and consequence. But if we can explicitly reject God, or at least God’s revelation in scripture and the apostolic tradition, and fear no consequence, then we do not have the power to choose in real freedom. We would be little more than what the young call NPCs—non-playing characters—in some divine daydream or virtual reality gameplay.

If we are not free, then we cannot love. Love can only arise out of freedom.

So a Church that in practice sees nothing as affecting salvation, or salvation as even in question, can hardly complain if no one comes to its services. We can make the services as hip and happening as we can, but what is hip changes every few years. The buzz wears off pretty quickly and boredom takes its place. TikTok is more fun.

This, I increasingly suspect, explains much of the official opposition to the traditional liturgy, and even the reform of the reform. These are out of sync with a Church that seems to be more concerned with fitting in with secular society, which flits from one fad to another in a heartbeat.

Ironically, from a purely functionalist-pragmatic point of view, it is a doomed strategy. If the support base for the liturgy which has a near-monopoly of official approval is both dwindling and rapidly aging, while the support base for the traditional liturgy and the traditionally-conditioned celebration of the reformed liturgy is growing and significantly younger, then one may reasonably doubt not only the faith but even the commercial common sense of the Church establishment. Even if future growth seems certain to lie with today’s younger, more committed and faithful laity who can see and accept that the Church’s tradition extends further back than the 1960s then, in the midst of a secular society antagonistic to the claims of the Christian faith, it is present comfort that triumphs.

After all, if heaven is not at stake, why not? None of it would really matter.

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